Human beings require movement. Just as we reach the end of one motion, we have already started planning the next. If we are stopped, we figure out a way to go again. If we truly must be still, then we need to socialise, which is, in and of itself, movement of another type. And even when we are at our most powerless in provoking ourselves onward, that most beautiful organ, the human brain picks up the pace for the sake of progress. Immovability is an existential crisis. Our ontologies are quickly made inadequate before reality and the uncomfortable chill of panic looms heavy. This has been a refreshed, but definitely not a refreshing, experience for us recently as a consequence of the coronavirus. A lesson we can all take from our collective trauma under the Covid-19 global pandemic. We keep repeating the line that ‘we are all in this together,’ but can we look away from the mirror? This discomfort we all feel must couple with various headlines and platitudes that are all pointing to, and rather verbosely, the fact that things are not right. There have been indicators along the way and we have all picked up on them in one way or another.But we paid only slight attention to them and allowed them to be normalised. The grinding halt of the world before the virus gave us the whiplash that primes an individual for learning, but our inability to put a face on the problem gives power to our devices of normalisation. After all time keeps moving and so ought we.
The clock keeps ticking and the present carries on. The virus shines a light on many trends established prior to the pandemic – racism endemic to societies all around the world, existential fears that drive dehumanising identity politics or hateful xenophobia, and the horrific inequalities our global economic systems readily perpetuate. Anyone who is different or foreign was libelled to bring this disease into our homes. Chinese and Asians around the world found themselves again on the receiving end of a familiar tune. Muslims around the world were targeted by wayward conspiracy theories which, of course, is not a new phenomenon. But because a mosque gathering turned into a super spreader event, it has to be rationalised that all mosques everywhere were hives of infectivity. There are no clear statistics for the number of migrant workers who have been victims, both directly and indirectly to the disease since most countries don’t count them as actual people. Therefore, it is deemed acceptable to pay them less and stick them in accommodations we barely deem tolerable for prisoners. Close confinement, poor sanitation and without the PPE to spare beyond those who can afford it. What did we expect, that our lack of acknowledgement would keep them safe? The United States demonstrated nicely how withholding acknowledgement of reality works out in the end. And suffering with the migrant worker, abandoned to die far from home, are the poor, who never had a chance from the start, abandoned to die without a home in their homelands. While millions joined the ranks of the unemployed and impoverished, those already below our dramatically underestimated poverty lines, sunk deeper into pre-existing inequalities without anything to grab onto and maybe pull themselves back up with. The circumstances left available to the global poor only made them prime targets on the pandemic’s warpath.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease known as Covid-19, is said to be particularly severe for those suffering from ‘underlying conditions’. These are such things as cardiac problems, diabetes, and cancers. In the early days of the pandemic, this was used by some to argue that those with underlying conditions had it coming anyway, so it is unfair to stop the rest of us from going shopping and getting on with our busy social lives. Of course, all of us suffer from an underlying condition of being mortal. But there is another underlying condition I want to focus on: justice, or rather its conspicuous and almost universal absence.
Even before the pandemic, I was in lockdown: three times, confined to the four walls of a prison cell. Little compares to the immobilisation imposed by a prison sentence, particularly one uplifted by bogus charges. Regardless of the manoeuvring that saw to me finding myself behind those bars, the terror came in the denial of movement. Even the manufactured images of movement pandered by hollow, dead yards and echoing halls held little weight and the bliss of ignorance faded quickly. I did manage one comfort and escape. The one permitted through books. Eventually I could gallivant off in one of the masterful works of Shakespeare or engross myself in a challenging and stimulating intellectual work, a dream of a better tomorrow. But I was a political prisoner and anything deemed subversive was strictly forbidden. So, Hamlet and political philosophy would have to bide their time. I was, at least, allowed a copy of the Holy Qur’an. Since nothing in there ever led anyone towards any radical ideas about how to change a society. Aside from my prison Qur’an, I had one other book at my disposal. It was given to me by a colleague with the note that this ought to be where I focus my intellectual energies and learn the error of my ways. It was a book of prayer.
This particular book of prayer was Munyatul Musalli, written by the nineteenth century Malay scholar Shaykh Daud bin Abdullah Al-Fatani. Munyatul Musalli translates from Arabic as ‘the dream of a praying person’, and is perhaps familiar to Muslim students in the Middle East and South East Asia. It is a detailed instruction guide that notes the various prayers and rituals associated with them. Rather elementary, but beggars are rarely granted the freedom to be choosers. I took to Al-Fatani, bounding for the motion guaranteed in recounting all the prayers, their etiquette, and even a step-by-step playbook for the hajj. Reading through the disciplined articulations, I was suddenly struck when I happened upon the final chapter. Seeming a bit out of place, it was a discussion of justice, and it definitely had my attention. What did a philosophical discussion of justice have to do with a practical manual to prayer?
Although this sudden change of tone was not all that out of the ordinary. Rather, it adhered to a fairly common practice where a scholarly discussion would be nightcapped with a tatmimul faedah, or concluding benefit. Like an epilogue, but more of an author’s note, the last words amplified the text beyond the page. This practice, in accordance with the Shari’ah, would apply the discussion at hand to the day-to-day business of the intended audience. The original audience intended for Munyatul Musalli was the Sultan (which one remains a topic of debate) who commissioned the work. Al-Fatani saw fit that his additional benefit be a chapter of anecdotes on how a ruler might improve the overall wellbeing of his society by practicing just governance. This anecdotal presentation of justice spoke to a greater pan-Asian practice that was commonly used throughout the Malay Archipelago. It is also the method of teaching favoured by the Chinese masters Confucius and Sun-Tzu for their students and advising Emperors or civil servants.
One such anecdotal vignette notes how ancient rulers used to give their ministers three pages which contained messages that are to be given to the ruler when their reign tipped towards tyranny or wrath. The pages remind the ruler, first, that they are not God and shall return to the dust, second, that demonstrating mercy on Earth will ensure its reflection in the Hereafter, and third, that the ruler’s duty to uphold justice in accordance with Allah’s law has no compensation. Another series of anecdotes features a farm animal or agricultural product that yields surplus but when stolen by the ruler only yields deficit as the maintenance of justice was the cause of the originally yielded surplus, thus only when the magical source of wealth is returned to the people that justice is reinstated. Other anecdotes speak to the quality of the ruler’s advisors. It compares viziers to the gates of a city or as a mirror of the ruler themselves. If they do not reflect the values of the ruler, then the blemishes also present on the rulers. The general idea of justice crafted by these stories is one in which respect is paid to a proper order in society, especially concerning distribution of wealth and goods. The justice spoken of here was installed by God, but requires practical and ongoing refinement by all humanity, rulers and the ruled. Subtly, the responsibility incumbent on participants in a just society is alluded to along with justice being an ongoing process as opposed to the Western notion of it being a heavenly idea to be aspired to.
One could read Al-Fatani’s final thought as his chance to take advantage of his position. Perhaps, in preparing a guide for the Sultan to perform hajj with a local’s fluidity, he could sneak in a few of his own political opinions in that clever way intellectuals like to do with their words. I disagree with this assessment. I feel Al-Fatani was aiming at a much more profound end. As I pored over the book of prayer I fell into deep reflection. Prayer is an institution that is fundamentally central to being a Malay. One could make this claim about any community in touch with its religious identity, but for Malays and the rest of the Ummah where Arabic is not our first language, and our culture diverges greatly from our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, our adherence and respect for prayer makes for a point of strong connection between Malays and the Ummah. In this steeped tradition of prayer, we also find a deep commitment to justice. Al-Fatani not only teases at an entangled relationship between prayer and justice, he highlighted the direct role each of them plays within the hearts and acts of Muslims, being an integral, deeply embedded part of Muslim tradition. Coming at it from the Christian tradition, I think to the American philosopher Cornell West, who famously noted in his book, Race Matters, that ‘justice is what love looks like in public.’ In Islam, we continue this sentiment; justice is what prayer looks like in public. In exploring this idea, we must elevate justice beyond its current buzz word status so that it may live and breathe again in a world that has allowed it to go too long neglected into atrophy.
While there have been a few good ideas here and there, the Western pursuit of justice in many aspects has been a categorical failure. Sure, justice has occasionally been allowed to shine when convenient, for the privileged few, but ‘justice for all’, well, this is fantastical delusion. And it would be fair to ask, then why we should run the gambit from Hobbes to Rawls, as I intend to do? What have they actually done for the West, never mind the rest? The answer to this question is multifaceted. Some elements of Western control, due to its dominance over the last couple of centuries, go deeper than formal rule. The power to define has not only kept the West in its dominance through the supremacy of language and thought, it has also established a set of norms which cannot simply be cast away, but need to be transcended. For true transformative change to take place, a change that could even overturn the era of Western dominance, the successes and failures of the West ought to be taken note of, built upon, and criticised. The alternative would be a foolish pursuit of a new way that ignores history, the complexity of the modern world, and rides dangerously close to narcissism. So, we learn Western political theory and analyse Shakespeare not just because they are enjoyable, or because this is what the former British overlords decreed, or even because it is the end all, be all of enlightened thinking, but because it is there and we can learn from it. And how would we be any better than the colonisers if we took an entire worldview, tag it as treachery, and tried to set about reinventing the wheel, doomed on multiple fronts to repeat the same tragedies and comedies? And in postnormal times, it is about polylogue, which requires as many different voices and viewpoints, even if they have a history of violence against us and even if they are blatantly wrong. If we can see what’s wrong, perhaps we might be persuaded to do right. And from within, using the voices of those who have held power in the past, we can bring in our own voices and the voices of others. It is slow, it is an exhausting struggle, but short of brutality or the risk of greater injustice, it is the only way to go about lasting change. Granted, a lot of barricades require tearing down first, particularly for Muslim thought.
The notion of justice has been mythologised through a great many historical impediments. Casting it as some higher form, forgetting that it is lived tradition, it becomes a peak we can no longer summit. Despite justice being embedded in Islamic scholarship, and being a fundamental objective of its adherents, we do not talk about it. Injustice is taken as given and we have almost surrendered our agency over justice in the real world. Modernity consigned justice to a nebulous notion of egalitarianism. Its basic aim was to keep the wheels of production turning to ensure constant growth, perpetual progress, and assume that some benefits would trickle down to the down trodden. Postmodernism does us no better. The discussion devolved into ‘justice for whom’ or ‘justice with respect to what’. The holistic totality of justice thrown to the wind. Objective justice has been assassinated. In this subjectivity, we reduce justice to a notion of exchange. As if it could be a commodity anyone would want to trade on the floor of the stock exchange. Left unspoken it becomes quieter than a whisper, a noise at the mercy of a cacophony of background sounds.
That noise crescendos into focus with the wrapping of a gavel. The sound that brings an auction to order, that once punctuated my school house debates, should have easily evolved into the thumping that filled the void between our arguments on the floor of Malaysia’s Parliament. Instead, this romantic flow of musical notes was interrupted by the collisions which set the tempo for my appearances in the courtroom. The noise at the collision between gavel and sound block is hardly distinguishable from the impact of the policeman’s baton against my body. In the 1970s, during my rebellious university days, a courtroom wasn’t always necessary. That colonial vestige, the Internal Securities Act (ISA), made it so that formal charges were not required to detain me or anyone else deemed an enemy of the state. As I grew older, I would at least be upgraded to farcical show-trial. A matinee sure to ruin anyone’s afternoon.
During my various detentions, I learned there is a certain naivety amongst revolutionaries. You learn that the limits of injustice are not simply wrongful imprisonment or tyrannical despots, injustice is far more clever and more so often less obvious. There is a tendency to confine justice to the business of robed lawyers and armchair philosophers, but it is rather curious how it is the hot topic of those pitted against the threat of imprisonment and those who find themselves behind bars. When one is the victim of wrong doing, there is a desire to seek pity from the mirror, but mirrors are few and far between in these cells. There is no choice but to face reality. My condition was not new, nor was I alone. I now shared in a history common to many held in Malaysia or other former colonies throughout the world. Victims of laws created to divide a collected people and control them. And that history lived on the faces of my fellow inmates. I learned all too well the truth behind the American writer Mark Twain’s quote ‘if you want to see the dregs of society, go down to the jail and watch the changing of the guard.’ And when you realise where these people with whom I now shared a place had come from, you understand that what happens here is just a microcosm for what is happening out there each and every day. I can count my blessings as at least out there I could move, yet in or out, many of my fellow inmates never even had a chance at motion. For the disadvantaged and impoverished, their imprisonment began at birth and would extend far beyond the most corrupt courts’ decree.
On their faces were written the contemporary problem of justice. And the problem at hand goes much deeper than what is often credited. The faces behind injustice, or more appropriately the absence of justice, invoke the reality, which we would rather ignore, behind poverty and those pushed away as outliers of society. And in our ignorance, we deny them the dignity we thought was inalienable to human beings. Even in prison, where one might think at least there is the mutual impediment on one’s freedoms to unite us, the inequalities outside the prison gates are as much, and perhaps more so, made apparent. Today, as the Covid-19 pandemic runs on, we exhaust the safety nets we had, which were generally not even prepared to handle the first wave of shutdowns the virus demanded. The fragility of our comfort and security in these uncertain times echoes a turning of the screw on injustices around the world.
The Shakespeare I once thought of as a mode of escape, told familiar tales that ring too real. ‘For as thou urgest justice, be assured Thou shall have justice, more than thou desir’st.’ I had desired perhaps Portia’s monologue in appeal to mercy, yet this line from The Merchant of Venice is indicative of the togetherness we all too often forget pertains to justice. The seventeenth century English poet, John Donne penned a similar meditation which would go on to inspire Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Donne’s bells are that of the churches in England which rang either to signal a wedding or a funeral. These tolls were for the latter. Yet, he might well have spoken of the popular retributive characteristic of modern justice. But let us not forget Mahatma Gandhi’s quote about an eye for an eye. As humans we are all united in various commonalities, especially our own mortality. One individual’s death then is not just a loss for the individual or those close to them, but a loss for us all. A loss for our community. A loss for the great human journey. Or, as to put it in the terms of the Qur’an, ‘if anyone kills a person…it is as he kills all mankind’ (5:32). This lesson bears a great weight in these unprecedented times when all of us are at the mercy of Covid-19. Hemingway provides us with an interesting example. In his novel, he takes note that Spain’s trading of democracy for fascism and dictatorship which followed the Spanish Civil War, was not just a loss for Spain, but for the international community and the beautiful idea of democracy. It was a stain on the progress promised after the atrocities of the twentieth century. Somewhere along the line justice lost its living, breathing quality, doomed to fossilisation.
This resultant ossification is a problem of mentality. The corresponding manufactured interregnum on justice discourse is not just a fault of culture, but the very structural pedestal upon which the West confined justice. It has been made into a sort of perfection, an ideal state, that can never be achieved. And who wants to be Sisyphus? This is the origin of the academic taking-for-granted-of the concept of justice. Students learn of Plato’s ideal city or Aristotle’s virtuous man. Ethics and just actions are then confined to the inaccurate calculous of the middle way. It is a tragic interpretation of the famous line from the American author John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. ‘And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.’ Originally this line was meant to combat the modernist craving to be perfect at the expense of morality, but when taken in consideration of the history of Western discourse on justice, it appears to be the rejection of perfection so as to deny the responsibility of morality. If you can’t be good, at least you tried. This mentality carried on in the development of Christendom and the state in the West. Today it infects the academic industrial complex of Western disciplines from Perth to Paris and Timbuktu to Kuala Lumpur and beyond. This intellectual block is very difficult to break through. Guilty of this myself, we often say, we need to be more critical in our thinking or provoke greater creativity and imagination. But to what end? How do we do this? Are we not confounded upon launch? How does the West out think itself? And perhaps for too long we have waited for this sort of revelation to be delivered from on high, instead of seeking it out.
There was a moment of hope in the West with the arrival of the Enlightenment. Such a storm of turmoil ought to have shaken a few things up. The state, the church, the arts, and humanity’s place among it all was brought into question. Following the Classic period, most conceptual discussions were restricted to looking for biblical justifications for the truth claims made by the pagans of yesteryear, or to letting them be damned to eternal hellfire. Their diligent work gave the framework by which Latin America has been burning since the colonial period and such abominations as just-war theory. The Enlightenment called for new ideas, needed to fill in the gaps left by Christianity and feudal society. This also kicked off the great secularisation of Europe which claims to be riding strong in the sophistication of the European Union today. And most pertinent for our discussion here, justice was put on trial.
But one does not simply remove justice from the pedestal the ancient Greeks put it upon. To do so would tarnish the concept, making it somewhat less. So, a vessel must be created to keep intact the perfect nature of justice. The Enlightenment thinkers devised the social contract to do just that and to build up to what we must go back to, the state of nature. An obvious allusion to the Garden of Eden, it is the port of call for the journey to be taken towards perfect justice – anchored on freedom, a notion that has become the pride and nightmare of Western civilisation. For thinkers of the Enlightenment, freedom is unbridled. Freedom at the cost of all else, including responsibility, or the survival concerns of society. This is a major divergence from the notion of freedom in Islam and other non-Western thought. This was freedom from structure, shame, order, and, where natural law dictated, the way of the world. Humans – and bear in mind the definition of such a creature was rather exclusive at this point in history – endowed with reason would exit the state of nature by way of the social contract, conquering everything – and apparently everyone – along the way. The total freedom of the state of nature had to be sacrificed or negotiated with an ordering entity dubbed the sovereign. Thoughts range the spectrum from absolute rulers to true rule by all. Monarchy, dictatorship, oligarchy, republic, and democracy were given a long overdue critical analysis. For Thomas Hobbes, the state of nature was a dangerous dog-eat-dog world and a citizen must surrender all their freedoms to their sovereign, a powerful absolute tyrant, the titular character of his 1651 opus, Leviathan. John Locke took more stock in these freedoms or rights, seeing them as sacred and inalienable. The point of the social contract was to check the sovereign, who he thought ought to be rather a body composed of the people, whose purpose is to defend the rights which pertain to a citizen’s preservation of ‘life, liberty, and property’. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was more of a democracy extremist. His idea of the state of nature was more puritanical than Hobbes and the structures of society have robbed humanity of its ability to be truly free. The social contract thus was instituted to emulate the freedom of the state of nature without disrupting the practicality of history. Equality, liberty, and fraternity were of the greatest rights that small, localised democracies must actively engage with to perfect. These men stand out in an age of rigorous debate and ripe ideas of how to build a better world, at least for some.
The idealist sentiment of justice continued to look at society in a vacuum, as a subject in the lab. Society rarely ever survives under such conditions. A theory was needed to allow for practical progress that did not diminish the perfection of justice. Enter Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill. Given such an imperfect world, there must be a simple categorisation which can provide for a ready-to-hand calculous. While the outcome may not always be perfect, we are only human, and the hope is it will come as close as possible. This is the rationality behind utilitarianism. The world was thus simplified into pains and pleasures, and the objective of society was to bring about the most pleasure for the greatest amount. Obviously, in our imperfect world, we cannot please everyone, but we will try. And so, the trap that created the manufactured justice discourse interregnum was revved up for another go. Here we hear the echoes of Winston Churchill, his words spoken on Armistice Day of 1947 that sum up the accomplishment of a history of Western notions of justice.
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
You can see the hopelessness in such a mentality? Yet this excerpt is quoted as though it were a national anthem. What motivation is there for innovation and progress where perfection is the impossible and yet the goal? This great contradiction in Western thought ushered in an era of catastrophic failures and lessons left unlearned, not just for the West, but for the world the West colonised. Its colonial power was strongest not only in the land it controlled via labyrinthine administrations or divide and conquer policy, but also in the toxic education they felt burdened with imparting on those they called ‘savages’. Us, who had to fight for the simple recognition as humans with the capacity for reason and thus worthy of citizenship. It is no wonder the postmodern thinkers thrived so much on the husks of hollow morality and brittle ethics. Not dissimilar to Dante’s descent into hell, perhaps a fitting disclaimer should be placed upon the history of justice in Western thought. ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’
American philosopher John Rawls aimed to provide some hope when in 1971 he published A Theory of Justice. Rawls primarily wanted to give a contemporary defence of social contract theory using the hot new method of the time, analytic philosophy. He needed to put to rest the popularity and ease with which utilitarianism and right-wing libertarianism was sweeping across much of Western political thought once and for all. Gaia weeps that such a wave of thought could not be curbed. Presumably, in Rawls’s mind, he had accomplished the objectives he set out for, yet its ending was less than satisfying. In reopening the pandora’s box on justice, one expects more resolution for the ills of the times, so it goes, many of which persist today.
Rawls transformed the discourse on justice from looking for the ideal world to something more practical. He decided that what we needed to do first is to derive the important principles that make a just society. It was to be the veil of ignorance, which would ensure fairness above all and also break down social inequalities and tyrannical structures. To determine the principles of a just society, each member would enter the original position, which sounds like the state of nature, but is more like a very plain conference room used for a market research study. Wealth, class, family, birthplace, citizenship status, employment and so on would all be left to the realm of the unknown for participants in the original position under the veil of ignorance. In the parlance of postnormal times, this would be second order or ‘vincible’ ignorance. You are aware that these categories exist, but you do not know which one the lottery of life will draw for you. In this position, the participants are forced to find principles that benefit the worst off in a given society, lest it be you for whom the bell tolls! This set up allows for two major tenants of justice as fairness to arise. First, each person in a given society will have equal rights and access to the most basic fundamental liberties. Second, if there must be inequalities, then the only allowable ones are those that benefit the worst off in society. In accordance with the first principle, the benefits of these inequalities must be open and equally available to all members of society.
The publication of A Theory of Justice stirred the sleeping giant of Western political philosophy. Fifty years on, Rawls is making a comeback after Donald Trump’s divisive presidency forced the American liberals to confront the issues of injustice, inequality and social division all over again. Ironically, Rawls and his greatest academic nemesis, Robert Nozick, held offices in the same department at Harvard University. Nozick leaned towards a rights-based approach that would rally the libertarians who stood against Rawls’s liberal dreamland. Rawls garnered criticism from friend, foe, and many non-Western scholars and thinkers. How does justice as fairness account for the dynamics of the family unit, for women’s rights, or the inherent injustice in the capitalist system? Others questioned his reliance on structures. He believed that institutions devised under the veil of ignorance could do no wrong. This, of course, was a major attacking point for Nozick who held to a minimalist state. For him, the structures Rawls hoped to pin victory on, would be the noose that hanged people’s fundamental rights. Nozick leaves notions of charity and social justice outside the jurisdiction of the state. After all, he claims, abiding by the script of Austrian-British economist, Friedrich Hayek, that we could not possibly know what is truly needed by every citizen to establish a truly equitable society. Thus, we should not rob the rights of one for the benefit of the other in the hope that the maths works out in the end. The Rawls-Nozick divide is a major segment of the line upon which Republicans and Democrats in the US debate. Both agreed that justice must be derived from principles. Yet both men fell into familiar pitfalls. They had each developed a utopian system, and people needed practical, real-world solutions to the impending doom of inequality that kept on creeping as we approached the last chapter of the twentieth century. The problem seemed, again, that Western scholars could not out think the West they found themselves within.
An Indian economist and Nobel laureate would provide an answer to the major failures of Rawls’s theory, particularly to non-Western cultures; and he would do this in a way that would not completely dismiss the theory, rather adapt, adjust and take it further. Amartya Sen’s work The Idea of Justice, dedicated to Rawls himself, would not only bring a non-Western voice to the discourse on justice, but seek to build a bridge so that a more plural approach could make the way for a more just world. Sen defends Rawls’s approach noting that it cannot be universalised. There are countless ways to get to justice and as long as one path does not itself involve the violation of justice, then logically it is a good path. Infused with anecdotes and Indian scripts, Sen not only opens the theory up to justice, he does it in the language and mentality of the West. The value of The Idea of Justice is that it speaks to a diverse, multilanguage, interdisciplinary approach to justice. ‘What is presented here is a theory of justice in a very broad sense. Its aim is to clarify how we can proceed to address questions of enhancing justice and removing injustice, rather than to offer resolutions of questions about the nature of perfect justice’, he writes. Finally, a theory that offers practicality for the Western pursuits of justice.
With the question, ‘why should the status of intense economic needs, which can be matters of life and death, be lower than that of personal liberties?’, Sen opens justice up to the realm of economics more specifically. A critical point as it is in economic injustice that we see some of the greatest suffering in our contemporary times. He emphasises that the earliest economic theoreticians held the preservation of justice as tantamount to a viable theory of economics. Similar to his stance on the multicultural necessity of a justice discourse, we can assume that Sen would approve of a transdisciplinary approach to seeking justice. Justice, especially in what we now consider postnormal times, must be a polylogue. Justice is multiplicity and need not be some supernatural entity which even Shakespeare leaves to the determination of higher beings, ‘and let time try’. Rather, why do we not do something about it?
Yet before we can go further, we have run into a bi-polar impediment. Covid-19 is not the only viral entity that has seized up progress. On one side of this impediment, we see the Western pursuit of justice has reached an impasse of contradictions. The pursuit of justice, as ideal utopia or practical guidance, cannot reconcile with the competing Western interests of neoliberal capitalism and the ossified tradition-bound pseudo democracy the global standard hails as infallible. The slings and arrows suffered by the global poor are the background noise to the enabling of unmitigated inequalities and the normality that pervades the privileged individual’s capacity to exist above the law. Indeed, the ghost of Westminster are felt in the farthest reaches of the former British Empire and the Western monopoly on definition extends without bounds, confounding even the Islamic attempt at a reasoned justice. On the other hand, this impediment is the diminishing of any intellectual pursuits by Muslim scholars. This is well illustrated in Khaled Abou El Fadl’s Reasoning with God, where he has to spend an extended preface sanitising Islamic law, Muslim law, Shari’ah, and fiqh from the misinterpretations and false claims, made by both non-Muslims and Muslims alike, that have confounded these concepts before he can even try bringing them into the contemporary context. This dual-natured stalemate is not only ridiculous, it reveals why the discussion itself cannot get any traction in the contemporary world. The status-quo is allowed to flourish and run amok. And this is what we are so eager to get back to after the pandemic? I would hope not.
In contrast to Western scholars, Muslim thinkers of the classical period had two major advantages. First, it was not of great importance to these thinkers whether their sources were Muslim or not. Islam does not see itself as separate from history. Perhaps the biblical language of ‘God’s chosen people’ established a major hurdle in separating the praiseworthy from heresy. The Qur’an clearly states that God’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammad is for all humankind, believer or not, Arab or otherwise. This revelation is also the last in a series, thus prior scriptures or writings are there to be studied and for gaining knowledge and wisdom. After all, who can discredit the great advancements in thinking that came before the Qur’anic revelation, and for the thinkers of Muslim civilisations, what an opportunity it proved to build upon the past as they did in numerous fields of inquiry. Second, classical Muslim thinkers were not trapped in dualities and categories. This obsession of Western thinkers has bedevilled the minds of generations. The dichotomies of mind, body, soul, or what have you were not as rigidly abided in the Islamic thinking of the time as it was in the West. Islamic thought was more open to blending and working with synthesis, less concerned with the precise dissections and clear-cut demarcations of their Western contemporaries.
The early Christian Church rose to a position of power largely based on its liturgical structuring. The very relationship between believer and Creator, God, required the intermediary of the clergy, from a common priest to the highest intermediary, the Pope. This may have begun out of the need for a literate member of the community to read the message of the Bible, but this role quickly evolved into a lucrative source of power, reaching its apex with the selling of indulgences. The Church not only rose to hold power over who would and would not receive salvation, but political and territorial power also. Islam did not have this history as it did not have a clergy, even though some ulama – religious scholars – did hold a prestigious position in society. Maturing in a culture more attuned to the oral tradition and the Prophet himself being unlettered, the relationship between believer and God was more personal. This personal relationship required that humanity had a responsibility and stake in the world they lived in with the perks of freedom and the Hereafter. The competing or cooperating interests of church and state were thus not as contentious. As both the Western and Islamic civilisations continued to do as humans do and spread across the map, they were bound to meet, or in the words of Samuel Huntington, clash.
As the West rose to dominance, so did its views, histories, and internal problems for everyone under its influence. By way of analogy, the failures of the early Christian Church were thrust upon Islam. And somewhere in history a rumour started that Islam will not get you to the truth, as it is just a religion – or to others, a heresy – and because of this it cannot come about the creation of something so pure and secular as democracy. And now a common belief holds that Islam cannot get to where the West is unless it first undergoes its own Enlightenment or an equivalent. But I call the West’s bluff. I look at their constitutions, and more importantly the debates that forged these great documents; what is not directly copied and pasted from scripture is hardly distinguishable from moral ethics derived from a worldview informed by the Christian faith and ethical framing. And that doesn’t have to be a problem. Many different framings can lead one to a logical conclusion of right from wrong. So why not Islam? And isn’t it best to get as many reasons for what is right or what is wrong as possible. Is this not the scholar’s errand and must it not be undertaken meticulously and with a critical lens? And after all, is this really what anyone wants? Who says Muslim societies wish to match the position of the West, failed stewards of the Earth confounded by their fundamentalist individualism and corruption rotted systems of distribution and justice? And what did the Enlightenment get Europe? Two world wars and a century of destruction and atrocity, upwards of one hundred million casualties, and destruction of Other cultures and traditions on a mass scale. ‘The Enlightenment legacy’, writes Ziauddin Sardar,
that Islam and Europe have nothing in common, that Islam is only a darker shadow of the West, that liberal secularism is the destiny of all human cultures, is much in evidence in our newspapers and television, literature and scholarship, as well as in our politics and foreign policies. It is the bedrock of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ hypothesis, Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilization’ thesis, and the neo-conservative ‘Project for the New American Century’. Voltaire’s Bastards, to use the title of John Ralston Saul’s brilliant 1992 book, are busy rationalising torture, military interventions, western supremacy and demonising Islam and Muslims. The Enlightenment may have been big on reason but it was, as Saul shows so convincingly, bereft of both meaning and morality. Forgive me if I don’t stand up and salute the Enlightenment.
We need to get over the notion that the West has won history and, therefore, the right to tell the story of the past for all and set the terms for the future of everyone. The rule that anything and everything must be done for the maintenance of supremacy of the West needs to end. And despite the reams of evidence to support this, perhaps the global cataclysm of Covid-19 will really open our eyes. There are other stories out there and other paths to reach the things we as humans stand united in desiring.
The Islamic discourse of the classical period was a global discourse. The history of Islam, as Marshall Hodgson shows in his multi-volume The Venture of Islam, was world history. Abu Nasr Al-Farabi, a tenth century Muslim philosopher, held Aristotle as the ‘first teacher’ and in accordance with this adoration, was known as the ‘second teacher’. He delighted in as much Plato as he could get his hands on. He even wrote of how the Prophet Muhammad was the philosopher king Plato longed for in Republic. From the constitution of Medina to the construction of the State, the Prophet’s examples demonstrate that a just society, as Plato and al-Farabi longed for, can be realised. This was not a lofty aspiration but a realistic goal that can be achieved. Ibn Rushd aligned with Al-Farabi’s thinking, emphasising the critical role philosophy plays in political order and justice. Just as the Prophet lived the philosophical ideal, it is incumbent on all humans to follow this example. The Qur’an asks us to be just, for Ibn Rushd, this is a call to philosophise. For critical thought and contemplation must take place for all politicians and law practitioners. Otherwise, we are just applying the law and this is insufficient for the fulfilment of the definition of justice. This is only a sample of the global discourse that extended from Baghdad to Andalusia with Ibn Bajja and Ibn-Tufayl.
Postcolonial spirit and revived Muslim nationalism between the 1970s and 1990s show that the Muslim intellectual exploration of justice followed a similar trajectory to the West. Many of their calls and intellectual efforts took the Western scaffolding as given and tried to Islamify or Shari’ahfy it. Opponents to this approach, such as Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies point to how this makes the Islamised idea subservient to and subject to the same flaws as the Western paradigms. Islamic economics, taken from the approach of using the Shari’ah to justify neoliberal economics, not only makes it a sub-field of Economics, a Western discipline, but also subject to the same rampant inequalities and exploits as its overlord. The urgent project now is to move from ‘Islamisation’ to integration of knowledge.
To help in refuting the mischaracterisations of Shari’ah, Khaled Abou El Fadl’s boils it down to its original definition so that you are not tempted to immediately make the jump to Islamic jurisprudence. Shari’ah, simply put, is a path to water. Water, being a pretty useful find in a desert climate, extrapolated, it is a pathway to nourishment or the good. The brilliance of El Fadl comes in his positioning of openness as fundamental to Islam. Islam is God’s final message, but not his only message. Shari’ah could readily refer to the laws of Moses, the path of Jesus, or the tradition or life of the Prophet Muhammad. It is this openness that stood as the bedrock to La Convivencia of Umayyad Spain and will be the key to building a global Convivencia where people differing in culture, language, ethnicity, religion, and any other identity label may be able to live together. This is religion at its highest level, religion that expounds a universal perspective, religion that heals bigotry and fanaticism. This is not a call for uniformity, as if such a dream could practically be imposed. Look at the difficulty we have all seen in getting the public to follow the safety protocols for the pandemic when their lives truly depend on it. We need a global togetherness where we can simultaneously cherish difference and cherish our own identities.
This sentiment abounds in the work of Afghani legal scholar Mohammad Hashim Kamali. His writings on justice not only revive Islamic approaches to knowledge but demonstrate how it can be a standard of which the rest of the world ought to take notice. Kamali importantly separates justice, adl, from Shari’ah. The misconception is that the only way to attain justice is through Shari’ah. Kamali says that while Shari’ah ought always to be aimed at seeking justice or a just world, it is not necessarily the only way, ‘since justice is an overriding objective, the quest towards it is not just confined to justice under the rule of law, but should be pursued at all levels, within or outside existing law.’ This harkens back to Al-Fatani’s notion of justice as the ultimate lived practice of prayer. Kamali maintains the openness seen in El Fadl, not only examining it beside other non-Muslim sources, but in locating it in the contemporary world. He interestingly places justice in a triumvirate of values with equality and freedom. One sacrificed for the others sees the strong triangle topple. Justice after all, as described in the Qur’an, is fundamentally a balance. And even this notion is not the advent of Islam, Islam did not appear out of nothingness, it came to a world where the clock had already been ticking in a region that was a crossroads to trade and cultures. The notion of justice as balance is also seen in the Vedic tradition of India and is played out in the Bhagavad Gita, were Arjuna’s major arc is to balance his duties and his actions. Although Arjuna projects his struggles through his conversation with Krishna, the struggle is deeply internal and bears a striking resemblance to the greater jihad within the personal battles of Muslims. The balance of justice also recalls the balance of the Dao (道) of ancient Chinese philosophy. Islam demonstrates a special elegance in not only its ability to derive similar conclusions as other schools of thought, but also to build on them in a way that leads towards a greater harmony and collaboration.
‘Justice is a state of being, a condition of things being in their proper places. It is also the quality of human act’, says the Malaysian philosopher, Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas. Justice is active but it is more than that. It is both a completion and a project in development at the same time. A mutual understanding echoes in the teachings of Confucius. Despite being an intellectual adversary of Daoism, Confucius appeals to the metaphysical conundrum that arises in attempting to understand the Dao and uses this understanding as a mode to seeking truth, a metaphor for being a good person. Junzi (君子) can be translated as ‘gentleman’ or ‘exemplary person’, but is often mistranslated as ‘sage’. To Confucius, to be a sage is a lifelong vocation – and a utopian ideal – that can never be attained in a human’s lifetime (lest one lose the motivation to continue being good), but the exemplary person is one who tries to do what is right and works to correct past wrongs and is always constantly working to better himself or herself. Keeping with this, in regards to the knowledge required to uphold justice, Al-Attas appeals to the term wuṣūl, or arriving. The arrival intended here is not a final destination. Rather, it is an active, always ongoing process. The pursuit of justice never ends. An apt metaphor for wuṣūl is found in the Mike Oldfield composition Tubular Bells, originally recorded in 1972 using a 16-track tape recorder. But once a decade, Oldfield would re-record the tune as new instruments and new technology would allow him to meticulously continue perfecting the tune. As more techniques become available, presumably Oldfield will continue to tweak the song until it matches what he hears in his head.
So here we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic with so much work to do. We have to realise that the project of justice will never be completed, we will always be arriving: from each subsequent analysis, from generation to generation, we will watch a rich tapestry weave itself in the work we do.
Each one of my stays in prison found me freed into an entirely different world. My first release took me from the turbulent 1970s into a hopeful, yet worrisome 1980s of growth, progress and neoliberal ecstasy. I went back to prison at the end of the 1990s where financial doom and the technological terror of the new millennium left the air nearly unbreathable. And my most recent release, only just over two years ago, finds me in a world ruled by the internet of things, social media, and the increasing digitalisation of our lives. And in just two years the world itself has been flipped on its head several times, struggling to keep up with simultaneous crises of nationalism, greed, xenophobia, and that’s before we get to the economic rollercoasters and our present pandemic. I have grown rather accustomed to, nearly an expert on, change; and radical changes they have been indeed. Yet while the images may change, the underlying human suffering and injustices remain and needs to be continually stood against. Sources of evil are so powerful because they are advantaged in their ability to evolve and change. So, if we want justice in our futures then we too must adapt our notions. Or else we will lose sight of the faces of injustice standing right in front of us.
At this moment we have not just the immediate quandary that stands front and centre, the Covid-19 pandemic, but a simultaneous onslaught of compounding and complex crises that need to be approached and navigated simultaneously and with innovative and creative approaches. The exponential growth of inequalities and divides, the natural by-product of the global capitalist system, the rise of xenophobic sentiment within isolationist and nationalistic fervour, the disrupted lives of migrants seeking refuge from human violence and environmental disaster, the good, bad, and ugly of our digital futures, and, of course, climate change. This sample barely scratches the surface of all the crises we face both collectively and from country to country and life to life. We must heed the warnings of disastrous inequality exposed by the French economist Thomas Picketty in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. We need to be considering the reality of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and our digital rights elucidated by Shoshanna Zuboff. We need to rethink our conventional notions of justice in a technologically driven ‘age of extremes’ as Mimi Sheller proposes in Mobility Justice. It is imperative that we seek green, sustainable ways forward to navigate climate change. Plus, there is a whole host of emerging crises on the horizon that we aren’t currently thinking about as we are too busy dealing with what is already on our plates. What are we not thinking about? Are enough voices being heard? Are any being silenced? What is poverty today? We need to challenge our conventional definitions. Poverty now is also immobility. There is digital poverty too. As the great paradox of capitalism shows that while the rich get richer, it may be hard to conceptualise the poor getting poorer, but their right to the mechanisms of upward mobility get further and further from their grasp. And that is wrong. That is why we need justice for our times. For me it is personal. That is why the political party I helped found holds Justice as its namesake.
The justice we need now is not simply ‘fairness’ it needs to be about equity and we need to work out how to see it out in the real world. Justice is not about being impartial, but instead, being impartial to the truth, which does still persist in this world of fake news and alternative facts. And we must remain humble, for we may not have the right answer and even if we find an answer that works, we must not fly so close to the sun and assume it as some universal solution. We must not be led astray, thinking that justice arises through victories, this is the infection of neoliberal capitalism speaking through a corrupted notion. Justice is a balance and involves the efforts of the many. The just world we crave is aided in the formation of a global Convivencia. It is incumbent upon us, be we Muslim or not, for it is an objective for all humans to strive for, the alignment that puts all things in their right place. This starts with us not just living next to each other, but living by one another and dismissing false stereotypes and manufactured boogiemen.
In the guise of a pandemic, history has offered us a warning and a moment to pause and reflect. I pray this time we do not miss an opportunity to improve our condition and the condition of everyone else on this planet. If we do not think about our futures and attune our thinking, it will be too late and we will be left in a cell with no comfort but what comes from prayers. The dream is not a utopia. Suffice it to say it will not be easy. But democracy can be slow and can be messy, but such is compromise and peace.
Patience for now, but I have not stopped moving yet.